Apr 212011
William Shakespeare

William ShakespeareWith the release of the Atlas Shrugged movie, not to mention the past recession, there has been a renewed interest in the works of Ayn Rand.  Having read all her books my personal favorite of the non-fiction has to be The Romantic Manifesto.  It is this book which has stayed with me for all these 20 years since I first read it.

The Romantic Manifesto is about aesthetics, the appreciation of art and who among us can live from day to day without listening to music, seeing a statue or a painting, reading a book, watching a play, a movie or even a television program?

If I were to mention to you Whistler’s Mother who would not imagine an old lady in a chair?

If I were to say to you, ”Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—“ you would know at once that I was quoting Edgar Allen Poe who wrote those lines 166 years ago.

And how about “Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou,”  a 900 year old poem from Omar Khayyam still resonating with us today.

Art, whether poetry, music, painting, sculpture, play, or television program is an essential requirement for the human mind.  In fact it is singularly human.  No other animal has anything which can be said to be art or anything near to it.

Art also seems to be as old as man with many artifacts which could be called art dating back tens of thousands of years.

But what purpose does art serve?  Art exists as an end unto itself, but not for the sake of itself.  “Ars gratia artis”, or “art for art’s sake” is not entirely correct.  Instead it should be “ars gratia hominem”, if my Latin is correct, or “art for man’s sake”. It exists to please us.  It is there to be contemplated by man.  It needs only to be reflected upon, to be appreciated.   A work of art lives although its creator may be long dead and buried.  It lives but only as we, man, can contemplate it.  When the last man dies so too dies all art.  From that point on a novel will be only ink on paper, a painting will be only dried oil on canvas, and a sculpture will be only a lump of marble.

There is the age old question of what makes art good as opposed to bad?  It is here that The Romantic Manifesto is clear.  Art requires at least two choices by the artist.  The first is selection.  What aspect of reality will he choose to focus upon?  It cannot be random.  It must be chosen.  The second is how the artist will choose to stylize the selection.  Both the selection of the subject and how it comes to represent reality reveal the artist’s sense of life.  His fundamental philosophy encapsulated in a moment of song or image evoking an emotion in those who perceive it.  Likewise the emotion that a piece of art evokes reveals something of the sense of life of the recipient of the art.

What makes good art or bad art, however, is not a matter of how we as critics simply feel.  It requires a cognitive evaluation of work, a thoughtful evaluation which analyses style, technical ability and subject matter.  The result of such an analysis determines whether or not an art work is good or not.  A value judgment is made which says something not only of the artist but of the viewer or listener.

If I might drop a cliché, I may not know art but I know what I like.  But more importantly not only do I know what I like I know why I know what I like.

By way of contrasting good and bad art I have chosen two pieces from two of my favorite playwrights, William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde and I will compare them with the painter  Jackson Pollock and a playwright I consider to be particularly bad, or more specifically to represent a negative sense of life, Samuel Beckett.

The first play excerpt requires a bit of explanation.  If any of you have read or even listened to Shakespeare without having the pleasure of seeing it performed you will understand that it can be virtually indecipherable without context and a bit of explanation.

What follows is from Love’s Labor’s Lost Act 4 Scene 2.  Holofernes is a very learned schoolmaster who prides himself on his wit and intelligence.  I like to think that Holofernes is actually Shakespeare himself having some fun with the audience by showing off his remarkable skill at wordplay.

Holofernes recites an extemporal epitaph about the killing, by the princess, of a deer.  A pricket is a buck of two years and a sorel is a buck of three years.  The L he refers to is the Roman numeral for fifty.  Look for some false humility when he explains his gift for poetry and rhyme and also for the sexual innuendo when complimented on his skill by his friend curate, Sir Nathaniel.


The preyful princess pierced and prick’d a pretty
pleasing pricket;
Some say a sore; but not a sore, till now made
sore with shooting.
The dogs did yell: put L to sore, then sorel jumps
from thicket;
Or pricket sore, or else sorel; the people fall a-hooting.
If sore be sore, then L to sore makes fifty sores
one sorel.
Of one sore I an hundred make by adding but one more L.


A rare talent!


[Aside] If a talent be a claw, look how he claws
him with a talent.


This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a
foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures,
shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions,
revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of
memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and
delivered upon the mellowing of occasion. But the
gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am
thankful for it.


Sir, I praise the Lord for you; and so may my
parishioners; for their sons are well tutored by
you, and their daughters profit very greatly under
you: you are a good member of the commonwealth.


Mehercle, if their sons be ingenuous, they shall
want no instruction; if their daughters be capable,
I will put it to them: but vir sapit qui pauca

As another example of art which portrays a positive sense of life I chose Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, a marvelous, up-lifting, and humorous play about, love and deception from the master of wit himself.  This is a an edited excerpt;

Algernon.  …Besides, your name isn’t Jack at all; it is Ernest.

Jack. It isn’t Ernest; it’s Jack.

Algernon. You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn’t Ernest. It’s on your cards. Here is one of them. [Taking it from case.] ‘Mr. Ernest Worthing, B. 4, The Albany.’ I’ll keep this as a proof that your name is Ernest if ever you attempt to deny it to me, or to Gwendolen, or to any one else. [Puts the card in his pocket.]

Jack. Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country…

Algernon. Now, go on! Tell me the whole thing. I may mention that I have always suspected you of being a confirmed and secret Bunburyist; and I am quite sure of it now.

Jack. Bunburyist? What on earth do you mean by a Bunburyist?

Algernon. I’ll reveal to you the meaning of that incomparable expression as soon as you are kind enough to inform me why you are Ernest in town and Jack in the country.

Jack. My dear fellow, there is nothing improbable about my explanation at all. In fact it’s perfectly ordinary. Old Mr. Thomas Cardew, who adopted me when I was a little boy, made me in his will guardian to his grand-daughter, Miss Cecily Cardew. Cecily, who addresses me as her uncle from motives of respect that you could not possibly appreciate, lives at my place in the country under the charge of her admirable governess, Miss Prism.

Algernon. Where is that place in the country, by the way?

Jack. That is nothing to you, dear boy. You are not going to be invited… I may tell you candidly that the place is not in Shropshire.

Algernon. I suspected that, my dear fellow! I have Bunburyed all over Shropshire on two separate occasions. Now, go on. Why are you Ernest in town and Jack in the country?

Jack. My dear Algy, I don’t know whether you will be able to understand my real motives. You are hardly serious enough. …in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes. That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.

Algernon. The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!

Jack. That wouldn’t be at all a bad thing.

Algernon. Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.

Shakespeare should be no stranger to us.  His plays and sonnets about love, jealousy, betrayal, adventure, war, death, humour and every emotion one could think of have stood the test of time being over 400 hundred years old and still being played in theatres and made into movies to this day.  His themes are universal to the human condition.  His eloquence is iconic.   He was a master craftsman of the English language.  He was a great artist with a positive sense of life, extolling the virtues of man; love, honour, heroism, justice and beauty.

Oscar Wilde was a wordsmith as well and a commentator on the society of his day.  His restrained yet rebellious nature is evident in his plays and stories.  His positive sense of life and love comes screaming out of a Victorian background of suspicion and fear.  His words help change the attitudes of a nation in a more enlightened direction.

These have been two examples of artists who have exhibited uplifting art stemming from a positive sense of life.  Let’s contrast that now with artists who have the opposite sense of life.  A negative, pessimistic sense of life who choose as their theme the common, the vulgar, the depraved, the ordinary, the grotesque, the mundane.

Ayn Rand once wrote in The Romantic Manifesto;

Misery, disease, disaster, evil, all the negatives of human existence, are proper objects of study in life, for the purpose of understanding and correcting them – but are not proper objects of contemplation for contemplation’s sake.  In art, and in literature, these negatives are worth recreating only in relation to some positive, as a foil, as a contrast, as a means of stressing the positive – but not as an end in themselves…

That one should wish to enjoy the contemplation of values, of the good – of man’s greatness, intelligence, ability, virtue, and heroism – is self explanatory.  It is the contemplation of the evil that requires explanation and justification; and the same goes for the contemplation of the mediocre, the undistinguished, the commonplace, the meaningless, the mindless.

I once visited the National Art Gallery in Ottawa and there I saw a painting of oil on acrylic by Jackson Pollock.  It amounted to a random splashing of paint on a piece of plastic.  A blind five year old could have replicated the work, or at least the essential hap-hazard nature of the work, with no effort.  It is paintings like Pollock’s which have come to represent the pinnacle of ignorance in society.  So-called art experts have embraced the absurd and the unintelligible in some vane disguise at credibility.  They have created a niche market for garbage where they have exalted themselves into positions of authority on the indefinable.  Anybody who dares to negatively critique work such as Pollock’s are ridiculed for being unimaginative, out of touch, or plebeian, while they seem to hold some mystical understanding of these random scribblings and paint splashes.  This is not unlike an astrologist claiming to understand human behavior by knowing the position of the planets at the time of your birth or a witch doctor understanding what ails you by throwing the entrails of a sacrificial goat into a bowl and divining your ailment by deciphering the random patterns made by the guts.

I’m going to end my comparison of good and bad art with an excerpt from a modern playwright who has garnered a following of astrologists and witch doctors claiming to understand his verbal excrement.

Samuel Beckett has written a number of plays which have as their theme (if it could be said that any of his plays have a theme) the commonplace ramblings and disjointed thoughts of unremarkable people.

Perhaps his greatest known work, celebrated amongst the mentally challenged, is the play, Waiting for Godot.  It is about two men waiting on a hill adorned by a single tree who apparently are waiting for a man named Godot to meet them.  If you haven’t’ seen the play I don’t think I’m going to spoil your day too much by revealing that they never meet Godot.  It is intimated that the two men have been waiting an indefinite period of time for this man Godot.   Who Godot is is unexplained.  Who these men are or why they are waiting for Godot is left unanswered.  While waiting they briefly contemplate committing suicide by hanging themselves from the tree.  Unfortunately for the audience, who perhaps had the same thought while watching the play, they change their minds.

At some point they are met by two men, Pozzo and Lucky who arrive for no apparent reason.  Lucky has a rope around his neck and is led by Pozzo who refers to him as “Pig” Commanding him to walk this way and that.  When a hat is placed on Lucky’s head, Pozzo commands him to “Think!” What follows is a five minute logorrhea, a stream of consciousness that makes no sense.  In fact it should be called a stream of unconsciousness.  The meaning of the play has never been explained.  Nor has the meaning of any of Beckett’s other plays which are equally baffling in their incomprehensible gibberish.  And yet Samuel Beckett is praised as an iconic figure in modern theatre.  Here is the excerpt;

….wastes and pines and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the strides of physical culture the practice of sports such as tennis football running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding conating camogie skating tennis of all kinds fying flying sports of all sorts autumn summer winter winter tennis of all kinds hockey of all sorts penicillin and succedanea in a word I resume flying gliding golf over nine and eighteen holes tennis of all sorts in a word for reasons unknown in Feckham Peckham Fulham Clapham namely concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown but time will tell fades away I resume Fulham Clapham in a word the dead loss per head since the death of Bishop Berkeley being to the tune of one inch four ounce per head approximately by and large more or less to the nearest decimal good measure round figures stark naked in the stockinged feet in Connemara in a word for reasons unknown no matter what matter the facts are there and considering what is more much more grave that in the light of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman it appears what is more much more grave that in the light the light the light of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman that in the plains in the mountains by the seas by the rivers running water running fire the air is the same and then the earth namely the air and then the earth in the great cold the great dark the air and the earth …

Nine hundred years ago we had the brilliant imagery of Omar Khayyam asking us to reflect on the briefness of life.  Four hundred years ago we had Shakespeare titillating our minds with his eloquence.  Even 100 years ago we had Oscar Wilde stirring us out of our prudish, Victorian malaise with wit and satire.  While of late we have had the psychologically pathological likes of Jackson Pollock and Samuel Beckett mesmerizing and stupefying us into mass confusion.

I hope that one day we can dismiss artists such as Pollock and Beckett as life-hating, pitiable people not worthy of our attention and begin embracing art which is positive, up-lifting, life-loving and true to our nature as rational beings.  It’s time we stopped waiting for Godot.

(Originally broadcast on Just Right #196, April 21, 2011 with audio clips where text excerpts appear here.)